What Can Be Done About North Korea?

North Korea's nuclear program is making headlines once again, as the hermit kingdom tested two ballistic missiles, exchanged fire with South Korea and threatened a nuclear test. Just how worried should we be about North Korea? To find out, Ploughshares Fund sat down with grantee Joel Wit, experienced U.S. diplomat and an expert on North Korea. 

Ploughshares Fund: The most recent Pentagon Defense review cited North Korea as a direct and growing threat to the United States. How much of a threat are they currently?

Joel Wit: How much of a threat they are depends on how you think about it. If you think about North Korea as a threat to our regional allies in Northeast Asia or to U.S. interests in the region, we should be concerned. If you’re thinking about it as a direct threat to the continental United States, we’re not there yet and won’t be for a while. But right now, North Korea is moving forward its nuclear weapons program and we’re doing nothing to stop them.

PF:  It is clear that negotiations with North Korea are at a complete standstill. Obviously, there are many barriers to reengagement, but which of these do you see as the most important issues?

JW: We’re in a very bad place with North Korea. The relationship between our two nations is at a low point. That has mostly to do with North Korea’s actions. North Korea has been moving forward with its WMD programs, and it has become clear that this buildup is not just for bargaining purposes. It’s a security issue for them.

Beyond that, the Obama Administration has decided that it doesn’t want to talk to North Korea unless North Korea takes unilateral first steps that no country would be willing to take. That’s a barrier that we’ve set up.

PF: Why is that?

JW: The administration is right in feeling that it was burned by North Korea as it came into office. North Korea conducted both a missile test and a nuclear test. That’s not a good way to start a relationship.

We have to be adults about this, however. Our national interest dictates that we do something about North Korea’s nuclear program. That doesn’t just mean negotiations. It could mean seeking sanctions and bolstering military ties with allies. But as part of any strategy, we have to be trying diplomacy. Right now, we’re not serious about that.

PF: Are there any steps that we can take to move the dialogue forward with North Korea? If so, what are they? 

JW: We must be willing to have a dialogue without pre-conditions. If we see that dialogue isn’t going anywhere, we could always walk away. The administration isn’t willing to do that because they are afraid of domestic political criticism. So what? We tried, they weren’t serious, let’s put together a policy that might be effective even without diplomacy. We’re not doing any of that. The administration’s policy seems to be only to keep North Korea off the front page of the newspapers. That’s not going to work. The fact is that this problem is festering and getting worse.

PF: People have recently asked us why the United States, the world’s preeminent military power, is wasting time talking. Can’t we just force North Korea to do what we want them to do?

JW: How? How could we force them? It’s true that policies based on brief sound bytes are popular when it comes to North Korea. “Let’s make them collapse, let’s force them to do what we want them to do.” From my experience working in government, the idea doesn’t matter as much as the next question, which is: how? If you tried to write a two page memo explaining how you would force North Korea to behave, I don’t know what you’d write down. They have nuclear weapons, the stockpile is growing, China is basically keeping them going for their own national purposes. So how are we supposed to force them to give up their program?

PF: Is there anything else that you think our readers should know about North Korea?

JW: North Korea’s nuclear program is a real and growing threat. In order to shape policy to deal with this threat, the U.S. needs to abandon its current cartoon image of North Korea and really seek to understand what we’re dealing with, whether in terms of politics, economics or security. The problem is that we don’t understand what we’re dealing with. That means you can’t shape effective policies. 

A former State Department official for 15 years, Joel Wit worked extensively on nuclear arms control, non-proliferation, and North Korea issues. Since leaving government in 2002, Wit has been a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and is now affiliated with the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and Columbia University. 

Photo by Michael Milne